Fort Edwards – History
“…at Edwards on the Cacapehon…”
This phrase appears quite a few times in the writings of Col. Washington and of Gov. Dinwiddie during the French and Indian War. Its frequent occurrence gives an insight into the importance of this frontier fort during one of the most terrifying conflicts in our history.
By 1748 settlers were beginning to move from the great Valley of the Shenandoah into the mountains to the west. Lord Fairfax who owned over five million acres was making land available in the western frontier area, many people were moving into the fertile river valleys. Joseph Edwards had secured a prime location in the Cacapon River valley. His four hundred acre tract sat astride the river somewhere near where the road from Winchester (formerly Fredericktowne) came into the valley. Eventually, his strong dwelling became a center of the community and a rallying point for the settlers when they were threatened by Indian raids.
With the opening of the French and Indian War in 1754, Edwards’s location would become far more important. After General Braddock’s defeat in 1755, the Virginia frontier was left open to attack by the French and their Indian Allies. (Click here to read Col. Washington’s own report of the defeat of Gen. Braddock.) Although Quebec was far away, the French knew that a successful attack on Virginia’s frontier might cause the British to cease their westward expansion. It was only natural for Col. George Washington to strengthen this site as a fort for his Virginia Regiment and as an important point for the protection of the road to the South Branch Valley forts.
The Battle of Great Cacapon
One of the most important military engagements of the War in Virginia took place in the vicinity of Ft. Edwards on April 18, 1756. In what has come to be called either the “Battle of Great Cacapon River” or “Mercer’s Massacre”, Capt. John Fenton Mercer, Ensign Thomas Carter and fifteen soldiers of a larger group were ambushed and killed when they left the safety of the fort to search for a band of Indians roaming in the area. This was the most fearful incident to occur near Winchester. It sent chills through the Governor and Burgesses in Williamsburg and impressed upon them the vulnerability of the frontier and the need for a defensive line of frontier forts.
In the first half of the French and Indian War, Edwards’s Fort was manned and maintained by the Virginia Regiment at Col. Washington’s orders. In later years after the war as bridges began to be built on important highways, the road was moved to a location with high bluffs along the bank. When the Northwest Turnpike was completed in the 1830s, Edwards’s home was no longer the center of town; it was then located well north of the highway. As Joseph Edwards’s heirs divided his lands and the town began to develop, the no-longer-necessary wooden stockade rotted away. Eventually all traces of Edwards’s house and of the stockade fort disappeared.
The Fort Today
Today we know little about the Fort at Joseph Edwards. Its location has been verified by preliminary archaeological excavations, but much remains to be discovered. In May of 1756 after Mercer’s Massacre, the House of Burgesses of the Colony of Virginia, at the urging of Col. Washington, ordered a chain of forts to be built from Henry Enoch’s at the Forks of Capon south to Halifax County. Several of these forts were in Hampshire County, but only the site of Edwards’s Fort is definitely located and available for investigation today.
The Foundation has done two extensive archaeological excavations that are beginning to reveal the outline and extent of the fort. Since there were no drawings or descriptions of the original fort, the archaeological work is the only way we have of determining the character of Edwards’s fort. See our Stockade page for additional details and photos.
George Washington and Fort Edwards
The most famous of all our heroes gained his first military experience in Hampshire County. In 1753 when Governor Dinwiddie needed to make contact with the French troops who were attempting to settle on British claims along the Ohio River, he choose George Washington. After passing through Hampshire County, Washington traveled on to Wills Creek (now Cumberland, MD) and met Christopher Gist, his guide on the trek to the Ohio.
In May, 1754, Col. Joshua Fry died at the Fort at Wills Creek; it was left to the twenty-two year old Washington to lead the Colonial forces to the Forks of the Ohio to sieze the land for England. It was on this expedition that George Washington fired the first shots of the French and Indian War near Great Meadow and eventually surrendered to the French at Fort Necessity.
In 1755 Col. Washington again passed through Hampshire County when he accompanied Gen. Braddock as an aide on the ill-fated campaign to capture Ft. Duquesne. Col. Washington became somewhat of an international figure because of his bravery in that campaign. In the next several years Col. Washington would visit Ft. Edwards often. Washington’s last visit to Hampshire County was in 1770 when he stopped to spend the night in Romney on his trip west to inspect the bounty lands granted to soldiers for service in the French and Indian War.
Daniel Morgan was another Revolutionary War hero who reputedly gained his first experience in fighting Indians in Hampshire County. Morgan was born in New Jersey in 1736, but moved to the Shenandoah Valley in his teens and became a wagoner or teamster. He was known to be one of the toughest of this lot of hard-driving, hard-drinking, hard-fighting men. In 1755 he served as a teamster with the ill-fated Gen. Braddock expedition to Ft. Duquesne. Kercheval’s A History of the Valley of Virginia places him as a soldier at Ft. Edwards in 1757 after the time of the massacre of Capt. Mercer’s men. Local tradition states that the fight which ensued when the Indians attacked the fort the second time was quite different. Morgan and the others sallied forth and gave battle with disastrous results for the Indians and their French comrades. Unfortuneately, this event can not be verified by a search of official records. However, records do confirm that Morgan served as a soldier in Hampshire County, and we have reason to believe that he was at Ft. Edwards around the time of the Battle of Great Cacapehon.
Following his experiences in the French and Indian War, Morgan raised a company of rangers in the Shenandoah Valley that rushed north to support Gen. Washington in the early days of the American Revolution. His instrumental action at the defeat of Gen. Burgoyne at Saratoga and his brilliant command at the battle of the Cowpens have placed Daniel Morgan among the most renowned of America’s military heroes. He retired to the Shenandoah Valley and died in Winchester, Virginia on July 6, 1802.
For further information on Daniel Morgan, click here.
For a series of articles on the Prelude to the French and Indian War go to our sister site: FrontierForts.org.
For a series of articles on Gen. Braddock’s campaign of 1755 go to our other sister site: BraddocksMarch.org
“A Party of Indians appearing in the Neighbourhood of the Fort, Capt. Mercer went out with three Subalterns, and 60 pick’d Men, and about a Mile from the Fort was attacked by a superior Number of Indians, whom they fought for some Time with good Success, but (the Enemy being reinforced by another Party) were at length obliged to give Way and retire to the Fort; Captain John Mercer, and Lieutenant Thomas Carter, two brave Virginian Youths, Voluntiers in the Defense of their Country, were, with 15 Men left in the Field; they died bravely the most honourable of Deaths…”